Photo Essay - Blacks in Politics, Part 2

Oscar Stanton DePriestCourtesy of the Library of Congress

Despite the influx of black politicians during the Reconstruction Era, most African Americans had been banished from politics and government by the early twentieth century. One exception was Oscar Stanton DePriest. The son of former slaves, DePriest moved north at a young age as part of the Exodusters migration of freed blacks who moved to Kansas looking for a better way of life. In 1928 DePriest was elected U.S. Representative for Kansas, becoming the first African American U.S. congressman from a northern state, as well as the first black congressman in nearly thirty years. DePriest was a great advocate for racial equality and, despite threats against his person, he spoke in throughout the south, urging black citizens to vote as a way to achieve racial equality.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr.Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was one of the most influential African American politicians of the mid-twentieth century. In 1941 Powell became the first African American elected to the New York City Council and in 1945 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the Twenty-second Congressional District, the district that encompassed Harlem. As a congressman Powell helped desegregate the public transit system in New York, worked to end the unfair poll taxes aimed at African Americans to discourage them from voting, and was instrumental in making lynching a federal crime. During the 1960s Powell chaired the Education and Labor Committee, the first time an African American had chaired such a powerful committee. In his time in the House, Powell helped guide over sixty major bills into law, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Powell's successful political career was hampered by scandal and eventually came to a close in the late 1960s as a result of public criticism for misconduct.

Robert WeaverCourtesy of the Library of Congress

In the first half of the twentieth century very few African Americans were elected to public office and none had ever been appointed as a policy advisor to the president. With encouragement from the first lady, in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to appoint African Americans as policy advisors and informally formed the group of African American politicians and thinkers who came to be known as the "Black Cabinet." The economist Robert Weaver (shown here) and the social reformer and educator Mary McLeod Bethune were key members of the 45 people who made up Roosevelt's Black Cabinet, or the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, as it was officially called. Though not part of the president's actual cabinet and while none of the members held any real government authority, the Black Cabinet was extremely influential in securing a place for African Americans in the New Deal. Additionally, the establishment of the informal committee also marked a shift in the hiring and appointing of African Americans to government positions. In the years after the formation of the Black Cabinet the number of black government officials grew exponentially.

John F. Conyers Jr.

John F. Conyers Jr. has served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1965 making him the longest serving African American in Congress and one of the longest-serving members of the House. A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the first African American to chair the Judiciary Committee, Conyers is widely regarded as one of the most progressive members of Congress. In 1968 Conyers first proposed a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Conyers also worked to ensure recognition of the United States as the birthplace of jazz and African Americans as its inventors. And every year since 1989 Conyers has introduced the "Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act" (H.R. 40) that calls for a study of possible reparations for descendants of U.S. slaves. The number forty in the bill refers to the forty acres and a mule promised to some newly freed slaves in 1865. Conyers is currently serving his twenty-first consecutive term in the House.

Barbara Jordan, 1976Courtesy of the Library of Congress

From 1967 to 1973, Barbara Jordan served as the first black woman in the Texas State Senate, and in 1972 Jordan went on to become the first black U.S. Representative from Texas. In the House, Jordan served on the powerful Ways and Means Committee as well as the House Judiciary Committee. It was as a member of the Judiciary Committee that during the 1974 Watergate scandal Jordan gained the nation's ear as a powerful and eloquent speaker. In 1976 Jordan became the first black woman to be the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. In her invigorating keynote speech Jordan remarked on the ways the nation should come together in order to move forward: "A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good. A government is invigorated when each one of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation. In this election year, we must define the 'common good' and begin again to shape a common future. Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us."

Harold Washington, 1983Courtesy of AP

While serving as a House Representative from Illinois in 1983, Harold Washington was courted to run for mayor in Chicago. Aware of the heightened racial tensions of the city, Washington agreed to run only if a massive voter registration campaign was undertaken. As a result, 130,000 new voters were registered, including a large number of African American voters, and Washington won the Democratic primary in a close race against the incumbent Jane Byrne and the State Attorney Robert Daley Jr. In another close—and heated—race fraught with racial tension and contentious debate, Washington defeated the Republican candidate Bernard Epton to become Chicago's first black mayor in 1983. During his term as mayor Washington worked to diversify the city's leadership often to his opponent's outcries. Washington was easily re-elected in 1987 but died a mere seven months after. Washington served as a forerunner to the many African Americans elected as mayors of major U.S cities in the 1980s and 1990s. Other black mayors included W. Wilson Goode of Philadelphia (1984), David Dinkins of New York City (1989), Sharon Pratt of Washington, D.C. (1990), and Sharon Sayles Belton of Minneapolis (1994).

Harvey Bernard Gantt, 1963

Following Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, throughout the twentieth century, not a single African American was elected senator of a southern state. But in 1990 the first black mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, attempted to shift that trend. Harvey B. Gantt, also notable for being the first black student at Clemson College in 1963 (shown here), embarked on a historic political race to unseat North Carolina's ultra-conservative senator, Jesse Helms. The political showdown that sought to differentiate the racist and exclusive "Old South" from the moral and inclusive "New South" caught the attention of the nation, though Helms defeated Gantt in 1990 and again in 1996. Today, Gantt is often invoked as example of how white voters, regardless of what they say to pollsters, will not vote for a black candidate when in the voting booth.

Sharon Pratt KellyCourtesy of Reuters/Bettmann

In 1990 Sharon Pratt Kelly was elected mayor of Washington, D.C., becoming the first black woman mayor of a major city. At the time of her election Washington, D.C., was plagued by a multitude of problems, including homelessness, unemployment, a failing public school system, and high levels of drug use, and voters looked to Pratt Kelly to bring change to the city. Once in office, however, Pratt Kelly proved unable to deliver on many of her promises, including her desire to secure statehood for the nation's capital, and began to lose the support of her constituents. Pratt Kelly served for only one term. Her predecessor, Marion Barry, who had been serving time for cocaine procession, defeated her in 1994.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, 2001Courtesy of AP

With the motto "Black People have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests" the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) designs and implements programs beneficial not only to African Americans, but to all persons in need. The CBC was established in 1971 by Shirley Chisholm, William Clay, George Collins, John Conyers, Ronald Dellums, Charles Diggs, Augustus Hawkins, Ralph Metcalfe, Parren Mitchell, Robert Nix, Charles Rangel, Louis Stokes, and Walter Fauntroy. On 6 Jan 2001 members of the CBC made headlines as they attempted to call attention to the disfranchisement of African American voters in Florida. When members of the House were called to certify the votes of the Electoral College in order to instate George W. Bush as president, a dozen members of the CBC protested and attempted to have the votes thrown out. Despite their objections, the electoral votes from Florida were counted and George W. Bush was installed as the 43rd President of the United States. Shortly after this photograph was taken, members of the CBC dramatically left the floor in protest, to the scattered applause of fellow House members.

Stephanie Tubbs Jones, 2005Courtesy of AP

On 20 August 2008, U.S. Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones unexpectedly passed away. In 1998 Tubbs Jones was elected to the House following in the footsteps of the longtime black Representative, Louis Stokes. Tubbs Jones was the first African American woman elected to the House from Ohio and was reelected representative for the Eleventh Congressional District of Ohio four times by an overwhelming majority of votes. A liberal Democrat, Tubbs Jones worked to pass legislation to fine predatory lenders and to expand health care to all in need. Tubbs Jones was noted for her vocal opposition to the reelection of President George W. Bush in 2004. She, along with Senator Barbara Boxer, objected to accepting Ohio's electoral votes, citing voting irregularities. During her time in the House, Tubbs Jones chaired the House Ethics Committee and also served on the Ways and Means Committee.